After decades of arguing, thousands of petition signatures, a 19th-century bribery scandal and five statewide votes, North Dakota this week joins the crowded ranks of states that play the lottery.
For its supporters, Thursday's debut of the Powerball game is a tardy acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of lotteries -- North Dakota's neighboring states all have Powerball -- and a chance for players to have fun while they drop a few dollars into the state's treasury.
"I think North Dakotans are just excited about the fact that they're finally going to be able to buy a big jackpot lottery ticket, even if they only spend a buck," said Rep. Andy Maragos, R-Minot, who championed a successful initiative to end the North Dakota Constitution's lottery ban. "Almost everybody I talk to thinks this is long overdue."
In three separate elections, most recently in June 1996, voters rejected lottery proposals by progressively larger margins. However, the initiative campaign fired enthusiasm for the idea, which got 63 percent approval in November 2002.
Critics consider the lottery a destructive new addition to North Dakota's gambling industry, which has until now been mostly limited to bars, bingo halls and casinos on the state's five American Indian reservations.
They say someone who is buying gas or groceries will be confronted with lottery advertising, including youngsters who don't normally encounter gambling. The distinctive red lottery terminals will be dispensing tickets at 396 retailers across the state.
The North Dakota Lottery is a state agency, part of the attorney general's office. The game puts state officials in the position of encouraging players who face long odds against winning, said former Gov. Arthur Link, a prominent gambling critic.
"I think the lottery supporters have got a false sense of what entertainment is," Link said. "I think they have lost track of the struggle that the founders of this state and this country had ... It was built on honest work and labor, and not on chances to gain riches and opportunity without working for it."
North Dakota will be the 25th state to join Powerball, which has drawings at 9:59 p.m. Central time on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
For $1, players get five numbers and one "Powerball" number. Should they match all six numbers -- the chances of doing so are one in 120 million -- they win the grand prize, which often goes above $100 million.
Supporters who are hoping the lottery will bring forth a gusher of cash for North Dakota education, health care and other programs are likely to be disappointed. In the 15 months remaining in the state's two-year budget cycle, the lottery is expected to deliver $1.4 million in revenues.
It hasn't been a windfall for North Dakota's two most rural neighboring states. In its last complete budget year, Montana's Powerball profits totaled $5.53 million, while South Dakota gained an estimated $2.62 million from the game.
Chuck Keller, the North Dakota Lottery's director, estimates that 21 cents of every $1 Powerball ticket will go to the state's general fund.
Normally a reserved man who speaks in a deep monotone, Keller describes his feelings about the lottery's debut in language a Powerball player might use if he hit a nine-digit jackpot. (Keller and other lottery employees are barred from playing the game).
"All the grunt work is done. Now it's just marketing, advertising, training, customer relations. It's gotten very fun, very exciting," Keller said last week.
"When you can see something develop from absolutely nothing, to a brand new industry for the state of North Dakota ... it's incredible," he said.
Bruce Brooks of Minot, an advocate during the 2003 Legislature of more stringent regulations on the new game, believes the state's return on each lottery dollar will be closer to 15 to 17 cents.
North Dakota is not charging sales tax on lottery ticket purchases, and Brooks believes the game will cut into taxable sales that benefit both North Dakota's treasury and local governments that charge sales tax.
Customers who play the lottery will have less to spend on snacks, soft drinks and other items that are taxed, he said.
"They may drag in a few dollars from people who just feel like they need to take a chance, but overall, the economy of North Dakota is going to suffer," Brooks said. "If you spend a dollar for a lottery ticket, you can't buy a Coke, or a couple of packs of gum, or candy bars, or any number of things."
The November 2002 vote reversed a state lottery ban that had been in effect for more than a century. In 1894, voters approved a constitutional provision that said the Legislature "shall have no power to authorize lotteries or gift enterprises for any purpose, and shall pass laws to prohibit the sale of lottery or gift enterprise tickets."
It was in response to a Capitol lottery scandal, during which promoters of a national lottery that had lost its charter in Louisiana were asking North Dakota lawmakers to grant them permission to do business.
The lottery hucksters "were ready to bribe legislators in order to secure the necessary votes," historian Elwyn Robinson wrote.
The governor hired a detective, who posed as a newspaper reporter to look into the bribery rumors. Once the investigator revealed his true occupation, the lottery charter, which had whizzed through the Senate by a two-thirds majority, never came to a House vote.
Maragos believes lottery opponents' arguments about societal corrosion are overblown, especially because North Dakota already has five American Indian casinos, a new pari-mutuel racetrack at Fargo and an extensive gambling industry that benefits charities.
"I respect their feelings about this, but that isn't the reality," Maragos said. "There's probably five states left in the country that don't have a lottery, and nobody can tell me their quality of life is better because they don't sell a lottery ticket."